What’s the most important skill I’ve learnt from our startup?

skillsThat was a question I was asked last night.  I was fortunate to be invited to be one of the mentors at a startup mentoring session held last night in the city.

Now that we’re out of nappies and are starting to wear big kids pants, being asked to mentors others who have big, bright ideas is not only an honour but a way that I feel like I can give back for those who took the time to mentor us on our startup journey.

When I was asked the question, I’ve got to admit that I found it hard to come up with a quick answer.  Having been in business for most of my adult life, I feel like I’ve amassed a number of skills along the way, so coming up with one that’s particular to this startup journey is not easy.

I really had to dig deep to come up with a particular skill.  I’d definitely learned how tenacious I can be (but that’s not a skill), I’ve learnt just how much pain I can bear (!), (also not a skill).  I’ve dug deep to use every bit of marketing and business knowledge I’ve amassed over 30 ears in business (not new) and, while we have a tech business, I haven’t learnt to code (we’ve employed that skill) so that doesn’t count either.  I’ve continued to learn about business, am an avid reader of all things around growth hacking, but again, that’s not a skill as much as it’s thinking a little differently about what I kind-of already knew.  I’ve managed staff before, and I’m an Accountant by training, so have got the financial thing mastered too.

So what new skill have I learnt?

After standing for what seemed like an eternity mumbling phrases like, “hmmmm, good question” and “let me think…”, I finally came up with one – consultative selling.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a sales person – not by a long shot.  Cold calling scares me silly and selling has never been something I’ve considered myself good at – or even capable of.

But over the last few years, I’ve realized that it’s not that hard – in fact, at times, I really like it.

I give credit for that skill to a client – one in particular.  She was the HR manager at a franchise group of well-known fast food brands.  It was one of my very early sales calls, my first big potential one – and I was all by myself.  There I was, sitting in their boardroom, armed with my nifty powerpoint presentation and a list of bullet points to go through to tell her how great our product was.  And in she walked – or rather strode.

The first thing she did was pull every blind open, each one made a bang, then strode to me and shook my hand.  She sat (or rather plopped) down and, before I could say a word, said “So, tell me why I should buy anything from you?”

Talk about taken aback.

And then she smiled, very warmly.

I immediately let go of my breath, realizing that she was actually not at all terrifying but she was actually messing around with me and, without thinking any further, my competitive nature go the better of me so I smiled and said back “Well, why don’t you tell me what I’d need to do to be able to do that?”

And that’s where the magic happened.

She immediately gave me a list of all of the problems she had and all of the solutions she was looking for.  And I had the perfect client brief.

That one conversation taught me what consultative selling really is – finding out exactly what a potential client is looking for – and we use it every time now because it works.  It’s taken me from something i thought I hated – selling – to something I really enjoy for a number of reasons.  The first is that it gives me a way to know exactly how to position Workible to clients, it gives me true insight into what our clients want, it gives us ideas for further Workible features that our clients want (and will pay for)  and, just as importantly, it actually allows us to built relationships with our clients by talking about them.

And all of that gives us a huge competitive advantage in our market.

It’s an interesting question to pose to yourself – and I’ve just asked Alli (my partner in Workible crime) the same question.  Her answer?  “Hmmm…… I’ll have to think about that.”  Funny, huh?

See her answer in the next blog.  In the meantime, what’s yours?

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Ideas from a hotel room floor

Last night I felt really inadequate!  In May 2013 I was privileged to be invited on a Study Tour to Silicon Valley with 9 other Australian businesswomen (and one very brave host) hosted by the fantastic team at the Commonwealth Bank’s Women In Focus.

Floor time in room 339 - this is how we do it

Floor time in room 339 – this is how we do it

While I’d been there before, this trip was one of those life-changing and unique experiences.  Not only did 11 high achieving women get along like a house on fire (unique in itself) but we become a bonded band of “silicon sistas” who shared the very real ups and downs of life as an entrepreneur – and, of course, got the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the inside running of some of the Valley’s biggest businesses.

Three of us stayed for a few days afterwards to get the lay of the land in respect to launching our businesses in the US.  After each day of meetings we’d congregate on the floor of my hotel room, Room 339, and work together on pitch decks, presentations and business plans.  And we talked about how great it was to be able to collaborate and share resources with other like-minded people.  Those sessions were gold.

We joked that, once we’d all “made it” we’d launch a co-working space (working title: Room 339) to help other women in startups to benefit, like we had, from collaboration.

Last night, one of the three of us, the fantastic Catriona Wallace, made that idea a reality with the launch of her women’s co-working space, “The Ventura”, in Sydney.  With a vision of collaboration and with plans for more centres around the world and with a focus on including areas where women lack these resources, such as in regional areas and areas where there are disadvantaged communities.

Catriona’s energy, passion and ability to run 3 businesses and 3 charities – as well as raising 2 young children and 3 older ones as a single mother – continues to amaze me.  And makes me feel totally inadequate as I struggle to balance time with one fast-moving start-up and time with my loved ones.

Each week, on more than one occasion, we get asked about how our business started.  It started from one idea – and one conversation in a car between Alli and me that went “wouldn’t you think that if a dating site can match hair and eye colour, a job site could match the days and hours you want to work”.   The Ventura came from a similar conversation on the floor of Room 339, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could create this type of collaboration for all women in startups”.

We now have Workible (now much more than a matching site due to more of those “what if” conversations) and the women’s start up community have the first (and I’m sure not the last) “The Ventura”.

Never doubt that those “what ifs” can turn into great things.  They can, and they do – every day.  In fact, it’s the only place they come from, so never be afraid to dream, question and create.  It can be the start of some amazing innovation – and the ride of your life.

Losing your mojo – an entrepreneur’s nightmare

lost-mojoIt’s a new year! Woo hoo! Lots of new year’s resolutions – things like this one’s the big one, now it’s all going to change – you get the picture.

Except that you wake up on day one and you’ve lost your mojo. You look at the dog, the cat or the wall and you wonder why you have no enthusiasm, no energy or you just can seem to get your you-know-what together.

It’s one thing to lose your mojo in a job, but, as an entrepreneur, it’s a killer.  In a job, you’ve got other people around you to help you, direct you, motivate you – or yell at you – but, as an entrepreneur you often have to be your own cheer squad and personal enthusiasm trainer so, when it gets lost, what do you do?

This year, at Christmas, I had a moment where I experienced that very thing. Things had been frantic for the month prior with opportunities everywhere and lots of great things happening (the top of the roller-coaster). Having been at the bottom of the roller-coaster 6 months prior, it was a very happy place for us. We spent the last week before Christmas planning for all the great stuff that was happening in January and afterwards. I was pumped.

Then Christmas hit. The first week was great. Silly Santa season, presents, relaxing and then new year’s day came around and I decided that it was back to work for me to prepare for the exciting onslaught ahead. So I sat at my computer and ….. nothing.

After umpteen cups of tea, talking to the dogs, moving out in the sun with my laptop (then back inside again) nothing I did seemed to make a difference – I just couldn’t seem to get started.

I struggled for about 3 days, forcing myself to get on with it – except that “it” was proving a bit elusive.

Day 4 meant back to the office. After a few hours of holiday banter and catch-ups, we sat down to plan and, wham!, there it was, back again.

So here’s the kicker…

I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me anyway, I need to be around other people. I get inspired sharing the journey, love the collaboration and adore the bouncing around of ideas. Which made me think – what happens for those who have to do this ride solo?

For those of us who have a partner in crime (aka Co-Founder, partner, et al), it’s a lot easier. There’s someone there to bounce things off, get inspiration from (or a good talking to) or even go out and share some liquid stamina with.

But for entrepreneurs who are operate on their own, lost mojo is a real problem.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had solo entrepreneur friends of mine say how much they envy me for both having a Co-Founder and the relationship I’m lucky to have with her.

So what are my tips for those going it alone?

1. Find a mentor, friend or confidante. Someone who can share the journey with you. And reach out for help when you need it. Better yet, schedule a time to meet regularly (say each week) to keep on track. And yes, if you have to, pay them!

2. Shake it up. Pick a new challenge (entrepreneurs love these) and throw yourself into it 100%.

3. Read. I can’t tell you how much this can help. I read something inspiring for at least 15 minutes every working day. It might be a business book, a motivational book or a website like growthhackers.com – or you can listen to podcasts or watch youtube if reading is not your thing. They’re sure to get the cogs turning. And do it every day.

4. Share your success. Posting something on social media usually invokes tons of responses from your friends (it’s one of the few things I like about Facebook) cheering you on.

5. Take a break. Spoil yourself. Have a doona day. Watch your favorite movies, head to the beach or catch up with friends. The next day, get up and watch some TED talks. It won’t take long to get back in the swing.

Why having no experience is a good thing

Last week, a member of a Facebook group I belong to posed a question about how to counter the “no experience” argument.

He’s a consultant and has been given the opportunity to put a proposal forward for a really big job with a company in an industry he’s new to.  He asked the group how he should best address the “no industry experience” argument that he was sure to get.

There were a number of answers – let them try you out before charging them, give them a money-back guarantee, try to find a connection who can give a testimonial – all of which, while trying to be extremely helpful, were about seeing this lack of experience as a negative.

I couldn’t resist throwing my two cents into this one.  You see, I’ve been on the receiving end of this for the last corporate job I applied for. That particular company was a very well known provider of credit cards and they were looking for someone from one of their 3 competitors to take the role so they could bring “knowledge of the industry and how it’s done here” to the business.

To my way of thinking, that’s ridiculous.  Isn’t the whole point of bringing someone new in to “break the mold” and do things differently rather than bringing in someone who does the same thing – but just getting them to do it for a different company?

So that’s how I framed my answer to the gentleman in the Facebook group.  I said to him that rather than putting a negative spin on his lack of industry experience, he should point out the benefits of having someone who doesn’t know “how it’s done here” and how that allows him the advantage of being able to look at the business with fresh – and disruptive – eyes.

Disruption is what it’s all about these days (but more about that in my next blog).

My Workible Co-Founder, Alli, and I had no industry experience in either recruitment or technology when we started our business.  Given we have a recruitment technology business, you’d think that that was madness.  But it wasn’t.  What it was was an opportunity to look at a problem and an industry and re-invent the wheel.  We had the luxury of giving ourselves free reign to say how do we think it should work without any preconceived ideas of how it “should”.

The result is that we’ve invented a totally disruptive platform that, we believe, will change the way recruitment is done.  And that’s the benefit of no experience.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re applying for your first job or your next job, or applying for a huge consulting contract like my Facebook pal, don’t let your lack of experience hold you back.  In fact, it’s a huge advantage so spin it that way.  You bring a fresh set of eyes to a business, and it allows you to think outside the square.

As an employer, I’m always happy to employ people with no experience – for that very reason.  And any savvy business owner, presented with that argument, would see it that way as well.  Let what others see as your biggest disadvantage, be the advantage you have over everyone else.

Are you brave enough to ask the hard questions?

Last week we did something really scary. We asked our users what they didn’t like about Workible.

Yes, it’s a pretty gutsy move.

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The idea came from an article I read about how engaged users can help you grow a business. It seemed like, on the surface, a great idea. Give people some vested interest in helping to create what they want and they’ll be more invested in it. Sounds reasonable. But the sceptic in me wondered whether they really cared or whether they’d use this opportunity to point out all of the little things they hated.

We spent quite a bit of time agonizing over exactly how we would phrase the survey to “soften any blows”. How would we phrase the questions so that we limited feeling totally ripped apart by the answers? In the middle of the conversation about just that, we decided not to. We decided we wanted the warts and all feedback.

You see, if we’ve built a product that sucks, then we want to know about it before we waste any more time going down that road. (BTW, we don’t think we have – but it’s not really our opinion that counts).

So we put together a survey giving users every opportunity to bag us out, and then held our collective breaths and pressed send.

Within a few hours we had hundreds of responses – and they kept coming in the next day and the one after. And we learnt a massive lesson.

First of all, we were absolutely thrilled with the results. Not only did we have oodles of suggestions as to how to improve, we got tons of feedback on the little things that people wanted. What surprised us more was how engaged people were in telling us how to build the product they wanted – and, amid all the suggestions, how positive they all were.

To be honest, most of the suggestions are already in the pipeline (which is proof that we are on the right track), but we did get some extra gems as well.

Some wanted us to get in touch to help them with their profiles and applications. Some told us that they loved Workible and not to change a thing (although that wasn’t the point of this exercise.) And some of the suggestions also centered around how we should do more surveys and keep asking these questions. What a relief!

The thing is – had we never been brave enough to open ourselves up to a possible barrage of criticism, then we would have never had this insight from the very people who determine our success (or failure).

Our commitment is to get back to each and every one of the hundreds of people who answered the survey – yes, it’s time consuming but we figure it’s a great relationship builder and really good for the “personality” of our business.

Interestingly, the last question we asked was “Would you refer Workible to a friend?”. After giving them 11 different opportunities to talk about what they don’t like, we were thrilled to get over 90% of yesses.

So here’s the kicker…

Your customers, clients or users are the ones who will determine whether your business fails or succeeds – and will determine the level at which you do either. Don’t be arrogant enough to think you know what they want. Ask.

Be brave enough to take the criticism on the chin. Most people won’t, so you’ll stand out for that alone.

Our exercise in asking has shown us a few of things. One is that lots of people are willing to help you. Secondly, people do feel more engaged in a product when they can contribute to its development. And thirdly, don’t make assumptions about anything.

Why business collaborations are marketing gold

Alliances, marketing partnerships, collaborations.  Call them what you will.  This method of growing a business is one of the simplest (and cheapest) about – and one of the most underutilised.

I regularly get approached to speak about this and it’s my very favorite marketing topic quite simply because it’s a way to grow massively and oftentimes without any advertising dollars spent.

For some reason, however, it seems to be daunting for most business owners.  The thought of having to approach someone and ask if there’s a way to work together is something that most small business owners think is only the right of the “big boys”.  But that’s far from the truth.

In my opinion, the real reason behind the reluctance is that a small business owner may think that they just don’t have enough to offer – but, again, that’s often a fallacy.  And that’s also assuming you know what the other business wants.

It seems that a lot of the thought around collaborations is that it’s all about swapping client databases and, in order for you to do that, your database must be as big as theirs.  Again, not true.  Sometimes alliances and collaborations having nothing to do with databases – but they do have something to do with swapping things.

Just recently, our company, Workible,was part of a massive collaboration that saw our user base grow by 26% in just one week.  We weren’t just collaborating with one business, we did it with a whole community.

This collaboration came about from a need – but that’s not unusual.

In fact, here’s the kicker – they all do. 

And it was about solving the needs of another group – our collaboration partner’s customers.  The client we collaborated with, a major regional shopping centre group, was expanding it’s centre and, as part of trying to keep their clients happy during a period of disruption, they asked how they could help them. There were two predominant suggestions – get us access to more foot traffic and make it easier for us to find staff.  And that’s where we came in.

Because Workible is perfectly targeted to these types of businesses – predominantly retailers – we were the perfect solution to solve their clients’ problems.  Initial discussions centered around how we could help the whole community and that opened us up to local TAFEs, the university, job services agencies and a range of other people in the community – all of whom had a need and all of whom could help solve some of the problems for a least one of the other collaboration partners.  This win-win attitude ultimately led to a whole community collaboration around jobs, job creation and getting people into work.  We even had the Lord Mayor at the launch event, singing the praises of this initiative.

The Centre helped their retailers, we helped them and the job service agencies to connect them with jobs and we got our own benefits.  The result for us was the staggering 26% growth but what was more staggering was the marketing cost of the collaboration to us.  It was zero!

All it took was a bit of our time to get an insane amount of growth in an equally insane (and short) period of time.

If you ever doubt the power of a collaboration, don’t.  And if you ever wonder about how to get one started, I’ve already given you the clue.  Ask the questions – “how can I help?”.

Delusional Optimism – and why it’s essential for entrepreneurs

said no entrepreneurJust recently I read an article about the Founder of Zappos talking about delusional optimism.  It really struck a chord in me.  Having started 10 businesses over my career life, I recognise this as not only the hallmark of a true entrepreneur but also essential to success.Back in my consulting days, I used to work with a myriad of different business owners – some were successful, some not so much.  I knew that there was a difference in their “make up” but it wasn’t until I read this article that I could put a name to it.The ones that were successful were the ones who truly believed in what they were doing – and had an unwavering belief in their ultimate success.  Yes, they had delusional optimism.  A true glass-is-half-full way of looking at what they are doing and a solid belief that they were on to the next great thing.  The ones that weren’t so successful or really struggled were the ones who had either bought themselves a job, inherited a family business or started one because they saw their boss taking $100 an hour and only paying them $40. (Don’t get me started on the logic – or lack thereof – of that!)

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that delusional optimism is the key to success – and I’ve certainly seen people who are totally deluded about their right, or ability, to succeed – but it needs to be in there.  However there are also other vital things that need to be in there too – a great product/market fit, a solid go-to-market and sales plan, the ability to market well, the ability to actually sell and the ability to manage both money and people.

In the tech start-up world, of which I’m now a part, there’s a very healthy dose of delusional optimism as, as I comb through my google alerts daily to see who’s doing what and raising what money, I can’t help but think, in some cases, it’s not just the entrepreneurs who are delusional!  Some of the raises I see, for businesses that I just can’t fathom, seem insane.

Having said that, the ability for the Founders to infect investors with the same delusional optimism they have is an essential part of raising money.

It’s the same ability that you need to also infect customers with – either in your sales process or in the marketing you do.  If you’re convinced that your product or service is the best there is, that you’re solving problem that no one else is or in a way that no one else can, or that you can provide extra value that is currently missing – and desired – then that, combined with your delusional optimism, is truly infectious.

So here’s the kicker….

Delusional optimism is a must have ingredient for you to succeed. I’ve seen lots of mediocre business ideas get off the ground because of delusional optimism and I’ve seen some great businesses and business ideas fail because of the lack of it.

So is delusional optimism the missing link in business in terms of whether or not you’ll succeed?  Perhaps not.  But is it an absolutely essential ingredient to your success.  Without a doubt.

Is it time to ‘fess up about what’s really holding you back?

We’re so busy.  Our businesses are cranking along, we tell our friends, and we’re just flat out.  But the fact of the matter is that, for many of us, we’re still not making the money we need.

So why is that?

I read something the other day that hit the nail squarely on the head.  The problem is not what we’re doing, it’s what we’re not doing.

We all know that a business is made up of lots of parts – managing people, marketing, money and sales.  And here’s the kicker – you need to do it all.

For many of us however, among all of that there’s at least one thing that we don’t like doing – and so we spend lots of time being very busy doing the others.  The others all need doing and are really important however there’s one that some people just stumble on – and that’s sales.

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I have a confession – I’m one of them.  And so is my business partner (and I don’t think she’ll mind me saying that).  Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite happy to go to a meeting with a new client and tell them all about my business, but cold calling and getting those appointments is something that, truthfully, I avoid like the plague – because I’m “very busy”.

Someone once said to me “without sales, the rest is all irrelevant” and, as much as I hate to admit it, he’s right.  This person sees sales as a challenge – and he loves it.  He’s tenacious, he’s persistent and a “no” to him is like water off a duck’s back.  And he’s exactly what our business needed.  So we employed him – and we’ve never looked back.

You see, as business owners, we’ll never be successful until we get real.  It’s time that we fess up about what we hate to do and either be prepared to step up and do it or employ someone who will.

Sales, or more importantly initiating sales, is one of those things you either love or hate – and, for many of us, it’s the latter.  And I’m talking about all the real sales stuff – not the networking, lunching, getting out-and-about type of sales.  I’m talking about hardcore lead generation and, oftentimes, cold calling.

There’s no crime in admitting you’re not good at it – or even that you don’t  like it – but get real about what has to be done and, if you’re not the one to do it, then hire someone who can.

And it’s the same for the other things in your business – whether that’s managing the cashflow, marketing, managing staff or any other crucial function.

The fallacy – and one that’s perpetuated at a number of conferences for business owners – is that we have step up and just do what we hate.  In fact, I’ve seen it yelled from the stage by many a business speaker (typically followed by lots of fist pumping and “if you’re with me say yes”) carry on.  And people leave saying “yep I’m gonna do it” and then two or three days back into it, our old habits come back and we’re busy avoiding what we hate again.

Humans are creatures of habit – and we all have certain types of personalities and all the fist pumping and “say yeah”-ing in the world won’t change our core personalities.

As a very non-confrontational person, I find cold call selling hard – in fact, sometimes I think I’d rather poke sticks in my eyes than do it.  But there’s stuff that I am good at – and that I love.

In fact, when we were trying to do sales cold calling ourselves my business partner and I would have sessions to psych ourselves up to do it – and then post mortem every unsuccessful call.  After months of this agony, we finally admitted to ourselves that, quite simply, we hate it and that it was, in fact, our big Achilles’ heel and that, if we weren’t comfortable (or good) at doing it, we needed someone who was.  And it was a huge turn around for our business.

Fessing up to ourselves (and therefore admitting that we weren’t, in fact, masters of everything) took courage.  We had to admit that we couldn’t do this on our own.  We had to admit that, while we had a damn good business, the one thing holding us back was something that we hated doing.  And we had to admit that we were really good at finding excuses to be too busy.  Whew!

But we’ve never looked back.

So rather than pretending that you’re brilliant at everything, how about ‘fessing up about what’s really holding you back – having a really good look in the mirror and instead of “rah rah” talks, spend the time finding the people who love what you hate, complement your strengths and are believers that your business is changing the status quo.

I’m hazarding a guess that this could be a major turning point for your business – as it was for ours.

The Work-Life Balance Seesaw

Last week I saw another article about work/life balance.  When I saw it I, was sitting in a luxury villa in Ko Samui after spending the day pool side staring out at a turquoise blue ocean from the infinity edge pool.

Yet three days prior, I was stressed to the eyeballs, having worked until the wee hours most nights and was, in fact, still trying to finalize urgent matters while I was running down the aircraft aisle trying to find my seat after being the last one on the plane.

This is not work life balance.  This is a work life seesaw – and probably extremely unhealthy.

It seems that, for those of us in business, on the corporate merry-go-round or busy taking care of children, households and caring, this is the norm and while we read weekly about the importance of work life balance, I doubt there are too many of us who can say we’ve got it.

I did have it once.  Working on property projects, I started my day with school drop off, followed by a yoga, pump or balance class at the gym then wandered home had a shower and did a day’s work that took me until 4 when it was school pick up time.

I had time for coffee with friends – but still managed to make more in that year than I ever have before.

Whatever happened??

Well, I got the brilliant idea to start up a tech company for a problem that my co-founder and I had at the time – finding work to fit around life.

The very premise for the business is that you can find work that fits around your obligations – whether they’re kids, caring, study or fun – but little did I know that starting that business would rob me of the very balance that I finally had.

It has become all consuming – and work life balance is far from where I am yet I know it’s possible.

So why don’t I have it now?  I am, in fact, lucky enough to be in control of the clicker for my life – as we all are.  Even more than having a 9 to 5 job, having my own business does allow me work life balance, if I choose to make it a priority.  I used to – and having a break like this (and reading a couple of great business books that I otherwise wouldn’t have time to read) has allowed me to realize this.

So here’s the kicker …..

The world will not end if I take an hour off to go to the gym – but I will be lot healthier.  My business won’t earn less money if I go for a walk at lunchtime – but it will give me time to think and, probably, a lot more creatively.

And if I don’t work until midnight – I will be a lot more on the ball in the morning (and probably get an extra hour in anyway as I won’t be struggling to get up!)

This week away has not only recharged my very depleted batteries but also given me the big realization that the seesaw is not a healthy way to live – and that there’s no hero status that comes with being a “I work so hard” martyr.